Criminalizing youth pushes them into both the juvenile court system and the foster care system when their needs could be better served in their homes and communities. Punitive responses do not increase public safety and instead traumatize children and dismantle families. As we work to abolish the juvenile legal and child welfare systems, Juvenile Law Center recognizes the urgent need to keep youth out of them by focusing on measures to decriminalize responses to youths’ behaviors.

Punitive approaches to public safety have a counterintuitive effect—they actually make communities less safe. When the response to a young person who engages in either harmful or normative, non-harmful behavior is incarceration, it is more likely that they will get pushed deeper into state systems. Even youth who are placed on probation as a “less punitive” measure are likely to be entangled further in the system for probation violations and other infractions. Criminalizing responses to adolescent behavior make it more difficult for youth to find work, housing, and resources if and when they exit the system.

Reliance on the legal and family policing systems compound the effects of racism and ableism, exacerbate the traumas youth in these systems already experienced, and can result in further violence and disconnection. At Juvenile Law Center, we fight for children to remain in their homes and communities with resources and supports, working to drastically shrink the footprint of the system through litigation, policy advocacy, youth engagement, and strategic communications.

Many youth are pulled into the juvenile court system for behaviors that are normative for teens and are only criminalized because of their age, such as underage drinking, staying out late, and running away. Criminalizing normal adolescent behaviors results in an over-representation of youth who are marginalized in our criminal and juvenile legal systems. Black and Brown children, children with disabilities and trans and queer children are disproportionately criminalized for behaviors their white, non-disabled, cisgender, and heterosexual peers are not. These communities are also targeted by law enforcement and swept into the court system in ways their peers are not. The presence of police in schools increases likelihood that youth, especially Black and Brown youth and youth with disabilities, will be funneled into the legal system at alarming rates. And with many states having no minimum age of jurisdiction,  children as young as six years old can be arrested and brought into the court system.

Our current systems abdicate responsibility and fail to recognize the social and development needs of young people. Investment in families and communities offers a stronger path towards a safe and health society. Juvenile Law Center commits to developing strategies to keep children out of the foster care and justice systems to reduce the trauma and harm of these systems on families and communities.